Regrets, I’ve had a few, but sustainable travel is an oxymoron, isn’t it?

I just commented on a piece by Mike Lewis who had written a list of ten regrets people have on their deathbed. I don’t know if Mike actually talked to people on their deathbeds, but it’s a reasonable guess that the items on his list — bearing a grudge, losing touch with friends, living an unhealthy life — are, on the whole, things most of us would regret. One of them is the regret that people have not to have travelled more. This brought me up short. I’m a philosopher and the focus of my work is the ecological emergency. This includes climate change and the damage to ecosystems caused by the continuing exponential growth in energy consumption and our incessant thirst for novelty. There’s not really much we can do about this, at one level. We’re human. Being curious about what goes on elsewhere is our species’ trademark: how do other people live? What’s that funny accent they have in Cavan? What’s the scenery like from the top of the Sugarloaf? Is French cooking as fabulous as it sounds? Imagine bathing in the seas of the The Maldives, or feeling yourself floating through Venice in a gondola, or seeing Paris in the spring, or hugging a redwood in Yosemite. Priceless, no? There’s an adventure or twenty with your name on it out there and you’d be a fool to sit at home like a killjoy if you had the means to get up and get out there. It’s all about experience, isn’t it and if you disagree, you’re either a coward or a bore….

The fly in the ointment is that experience has a price. Not just the price we pay to the airline, or to the travel agent, to the Airbnb host, or to the ticket seller at the gate to our dream destination. The hidden price includes the price paid by local people, the place, and the planet…The place might be a city and its environs — say, Cairo — or a piece of beautiful countryside — say, the Maasai Mara. The price of tourism in Egypt has been vandalism, and theft. The pyramids are now fenced off. The Maasai tribe in Tanzania is being forced — by the barrel of a gun, by their own government — to leave parts of their ancestral lands in order to allow tourists to experience the thrill of big game hunting. This is one paradox of travel. We all want to go and see and experience. But by the time many of us have been and seen and experienced, the very experience itself is sullied, no longer the pristine thing we were promised. A pale imitation of the original thrill, and the cost to the local community or culture can be colossal.

Another is the price of tourism as an economy. This is controversial, of course. Some places that now rely on tourism were economic backwaters before their beauty turned them, Cinderella-like, into the belles of the traveller’s ball. Tourism employs vast numbers — one in ten, worldwide, according to the World Economic Forum. But the jobs it creates are generally low paid, temporary, often seasonal, and usually insecure. Hotels have high staff turnover for a reason: long hours, poor working conditions, boring, dead-end jobs. The stuff you buy isn’t much better: cheap souvenirs made in a factory in China by people paid barely a subsistence wage and sold in shops that, off-season, have to close.

Let’s take an example. The Canary Islands relies on tourism for 20 percent of its GDP. Pre-pandemic, it was over 35 percent. That drop of 15 percent represents hungry kids, tense parents, food banks, depression, addiction, and emigration.

The people who live on those ‘fortunate isles’ are vastly poorer, on the whole, than the visitors. The Canaries have the highest rates of poverty among its resident population in the EU, with recent poverty rates of 30 percent and unemployment at over 20 percent — and this is after tourism boomed again from March of this year.

These are only official figures, though, because tourism generally parallels a shadow economy. There is the tourism you can see, and there is the tourism that’s there if you nudge and wink in the right direction. Sex tourism. Drug trafficking. Electronic and luxury goods ‘knock-offs’. In The Canaries, notoriously, people smuggling. Santana, a sociologist, explains: “as local and foreign experts have shown, tourism in the Canaries … continues to be a great source of political corruption, cultural indolence, and environmental and heritage destruction.”

And then there’s the old chestnut that provoked my original comment to Mike: flying. Mike Lewis’s response is that flying isn’t that bad, especially if you stay in a place for a few months. He’s got a point. Staying in a place for a few months means that your relative impact is going to be less, since you won’t, you can’t, make that many flights if you’re not moving much.

But let’s face it, most people don’t have a few weeks to take off. Most people travel as tourists for a week or two, because that’s what they’ve got. So let’s look at the facts, Mike. David MacKay wrote “flying once per year has an energy cost slightly bigger than leaving a 1 kW electric fire on, non-stop, 24 hours a day, all year.” Flying has direct and indirect impacts. For now, most of us have no choice, if we have the means: we either fly, and get to travel. Or we don’t. The ferry’s twenty times as expensive, takes two days, and could hit rough seas in October. I either have a relationship with the man I live with, and go with him, or I don’t. Choice? I don’t think so.

Mike really got me thinking when he replied that commuting to work is actually worse for the environment than travelling by plane to see the world. It’s an apples and oranges comparison. Commuting is largely foisted on people because, um, you have to get to work if you want to keep your job. Mike might be right, we might well regret working so hard. But that assumes we’ve lived long enough, healthy enough lives to have regrets. Not working has worse health outcomes for those of us without a trust fund on almost every measure. The choice bit’s an illusion. Let’s get rid of it.

Travel, on the other hand: that’s something we ponder, fantasise about, have time to realise. Or some of us do. One percent of the world’s population cause half the world’s flight emissions. Frequent flyer? You’re a rare breed, and you’re endangering the rest of us!

The bottom line is that Mike’s right — we want to travel — but he’s wrong to say that we should regret it if we can’t travel, or if we choose not to travel, or if we even choose to create a discussion around why travel is a curate’s egg when it comes to regrets. He’s right to point out that travel is an amazing experience, and since living existence is, by definition, experience, it’s hugely satisfying to be able to fuel our senses with the wonders of going elsewhere. He’s wrong, however, to present it as an unmitigated good. Travel can often be an escape route for people with the means but the disinclination to deal with the nub of their restlessness. I love travelling. I am also all too aware of the damaging impact of my actions. I do everything I can to mitigate the impact — from offsetting, to flying only when I have to, to trying to find affordable alternatives — but my actions are still undeniably damaging. When I travel, I try always to contribute something to the local economy or culture in a way that subverts the quick buck — I contact local artists, or conservation groups and see what volunteering opportunities are available. I try, Mike, not to be a killjoy! But I’m really, really interested in how we can change, collectively, so that we save ourselves from our own ignorance.

It is wilful ignorance to trumpet the benefits of travel without mentioning the impact. Thanks, then, Mike, for raising the issue, but please, also raise the questions, the hard questions, that we all need to ask. The greatest regret any one of us will have when we die is the regret that we have done less than we could have done to save ourselves from ourselves, from our own deliberate ignorance, our own blindness to the impacts of our actions, which have, collectively, created the ecological emergency, including biodiversity loss and climate change.

Many of Mike’s other regrets — look after yourself so you don’t live a life full of unnecessary health issues, look after your friendships, be kind, be generous in how you talk and think — ask us to wake up. All I’m asking is that you extend that awareness to the thorny issue of the way we treat those humans we don’t know, and those ecosystems we may never see or experience — the places where oil is refined, the mines for metals, the factories churning out plastic souvenirs, the people whose opportunities are curtailed because we, who could do otherwise, choose not to think about what we might do to open our eyes to their fates.



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Lucy Weir

Lucy Weir

Ecological philosopher, writer, yoga and meditation facilitator.